Grayling, Gillian Wigmore’s debut novella, follows a man on a canoe trip and personal journey through a dark night of the soul. There’s not a lot more I want to or can tell you about it, specifically, and this is what Descant reviewer Jack Hostrawser and I debated before agreeing on a suitable style for his review, below. Like the northwestern British Columbia landscape in which it is set, Grayling often camouflages more than it reveals.
But there are two scenes I will tell you about. One involves Leonard Cohen. No, not in a sleeping bag (sorry to interrupt your fantasy). The main characters in Grayling have a protracted conversation about the academic and existential meaning of Cohen’s poem-turned-song, “Suzanne.” The scene sticks out and I wondered: What was this long discussion doing there? Why “Suzanne”? Then I remembered — it’s exactly the kind of conversation friends have on a long camping or canoe trip like the one in Grayling. Someone starts something, apropos of nothing, and suddenly everyone’s an expert and wants to weigh in; as though we crave intellectual stimulation but nothing too serious. These are conversations that feel tinged with a sagacious quality simply because they are happening on water, or under stars; they mean everything and nothing. (You know that they’re half crazy, but that’s why you want to be there). But there is another reason why this scene does in fact fit in so well, but I didn’t see that until I’d finished the book. And then it took a while again, until the book was finished with me. Grayling echoes like that.
There’s another scene that I understood immediately and profoundly. The main protagonist bathes a woman in a makeshift bath he has invented for her near the shore. He washes her body carefully, methodically. If you have ever washed the body of a parent or an ailing spouse, you will understand the attention that Gillian Wigmore pays to the gestures in this scene to evoke this deliberate act of devotion. And yes, it’s even more powerful because it is a man washing a woman.
I like how Jack has quoted longer passages of Grayling in his review, rather than excise a sentence here and there. Gillian Wigmore is a published poet but I agree with Jack that Grayling isn’t self-consciously poetic. Like the river landscape in which it’s set, Grayling winds an enigmatic story between the rocky shores of the sacred and the profane.
Chaos Theory: A Review of Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling
by Jack Hostrawser
In Grayling, Jay sets out in a canoe on the Dease River, trying to make a clean break from his past. A mysterious woman, Julie, saves him from hypothermia then talks her way into the canoe, interrupting his isolation and sending the trip in new directions. Throughout their voyage the book tries to navigate our relationships with intimacy, meaning and the wilderness itself.
“He thought of deer leaping over bushes, out of the path of the fire. Animals too small or slow to get away from the flames occurred to him: beaver and rabbits, their twisted forms vivid, black and red, in his mind. He shivered and paddled on, away from the burn.”
Gillian Wigmore moves from the big questions to focus on detail and character, and she has a poet’s eye for details: her real-life outdoors experience is evident immediately, as well as her talent as a writer. The book is built of a focussed prose that sets to work with energy and draws the meandering river patiently. Her writing has a patience that allows the novella to feel fuller than its few pages suggest.
As the active, observant prose accumulates you realize that the novella is managing, in only one hundred and eleven pages, to carve out a multi-levelled parable that addresses our relationship with sexuality, nature and existentialist fears. Gillian Wigmore crafts a two-person story with depth and convincing, hard-earned humanity, whose characters’ individual needs and desires tangle compellingly. Jay lives a bitter coping strategy that evolves quietly across the narrative in a frustrating and poignant way. Julie begins as an enigma but reveals herself as the two grow closer. These are two people as stubborn, hopeful and frustrating as any of us.
“He looked at her and wondered if she’d decided something while he was sleeping. She didn’t look decided, she just seemed tired and a little dirty. Her hair under her bandana was tangled in clumps. She had soot in the crease of her nose. He saw her small hands around her mug, no rings of dirt under her nails, and he saw her lashes against her skin as she watched the fire, and he felt like there wasn’t a time before he knew her. His world had shrunk to the state of her body and their minds and the particular gravel bar they’d beached upon.”
Gillian Wigmore seems to be a visual writer more than she is a musical one and I think her sentences sometimes miss the mark, overplayed by narration that momentarily loses faith in its ability to enact the emotions it describes. But it was never the individual sentences that made me like this book; it was her reach. The ideas are big — so big I missed some the first time I read it (a certain blog editor had to enlighten me) and I had to reread it immediately to see everything I had missed.
Grayling aligns the minutia of fumbling human relationships with a wilderness that has been both predator and muse since we first tried to lift our heroes into the stars. It takes courage to risk an ambition like that. Gillian Wigmore stands fast and determines to do things I didn’t think could be done in the short space of a novella. And despite the size of the task, she pulls it off.
The final scene enacts a twist that puts everything before it into question. Her conclusion opens new possibilities as it steals away our expected ones; there is never a perfect, clear answer to our questions or our demands. Instead it is simultaneously sun-baked granite, dark pine trees, rough water and the “cold contracting muscle” of a glimmering grayling. You have to leave your calculations and preconceptions at the shore. In the chaotic rush of the Dease, even the pearlescence of a common fish could be sacred.
“Another him, one from even a year ago, would have exclaimed at the sight, would have even appreciated exclamations from others, but he stayed quiet, trying to soak the sight in: the swath the river cut into the earth, inarguable, ageless, so enormous and unapologetic he felt as dwarfed and bent as the trees. He couldn’t hold his eyes open wide enough to see it all: the scooped expanse of sand stretching skyward, the small birds swooping out from holes in the cliffs and soaring. The sound of rocks breaking off and crumbling into the river echoed down the valley. In the bow, she was still and silent, too.”
Grayling is a careful but slippery, quiet but brash and ultimately beautiful novella.
Jack Hostrawser received the York University President’s Prize in short fiction and is published in Existere, Steel Bananas and The Quilliad. He sometimes chases tornadoes and is being taught patience by an old motorcycle. He is currently production editor at Descant (for the fall 2014 Berlin issue), when not working on his first novel.
[And now this, because you know you need it.]